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Taking the “culture” out of “culture shock” – a critical review of literature on cross-cultural adjustment in international relocation

Frank Fitzpatrick (British Council Qatar, Doha, Qatar)

Critical Perspectives on International Business

ISSN: 1742-2043

Article publication date: 25 September 2017

Issue publication date: 23 October 2017




The purpose of this paper is to re-examine the use of the term “culture shock” in international management studies and cross-cultural research and to propose a paradigmatic shift in how the term is understood for future research. The experience of “culture shock” is an established concept within international management studies, engendering an industry of training designed to combat difficulties in relocation. This paper argues that the use of concept is based on a flawed understanding of “culture” and proposes an alternative perspective to help organisations prepare their employees for overseas assignments.


The paper opts for a critical review of literature to examine models of culture shock through time and theories relating to success factors in cross-cultural adjustment. In so doing, the paper revisits the notion of culture shock from a social constructionist perspective within a dialectical framework.


The paper challenges the notion of culture as an essential, reified concept, arguing that culture shock is not about culture, but about the dynamics of context and how individuals deal with life changes to navigate the challenges that they face.

Research limitations/implications

Future research should focus on context-related, interactive behaviour, framed in discourse processes, rather than predetermined a priori typologies based on cultural stereotypes. This would recognise the discursive nature of social interaction within a dialectical framework, where relational tension emerges as a result of disparity.

Practical implications

The paper contributes to an understanding of the complex range of factors influencing the success of relocation to guide international companies in their policies.


This paper proposes a paradigm shift in the treatment of culture shock towards a more discourse-based concept created through universal cultural and dialectical processes.



Fitzpatrick, F. (2017), "Taking the “culture” out of “culture shock” – a critical review of literature on cross-cultural adjustment in international relocation", Critical Perspectives on International Business, Vol. 13 No. 4, pp. 278-296.



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Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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